Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Pivotal Shakespeare Moment

I believe I first heard this bit of Shakespeare 50-plus years ago in an LP of readings by John Gielgud:

What's this, what's this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?
Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman's lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live!
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again,
And feast upon her eyes? What is't I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Even till now,
When men were fond, I smiled and wonder'd how.
Fans will recognize this as Angelo, the proud, punitive authoritarian surrogate-ruler in Measure for Measure.  He has been talking with Isabella, who sought him out to beg mercy for her brother Claudio, sentenced to decapitation for illicit sex.   The sex wasn't even all that illicit: it was consensual, and the lovers were betrothed.  But Angelo is unmoved by her plea--until he discovers, to his horror, that he is suffused by the same kind of ungovernable passion (i.e here, for Isabella) that led Claudio to the mouth of his grave.

I think I understand now (as I surely did not then) that it is not just a powerful speech in its own right, but rather also a pivotal item in the entire Shakespeare canon.   Here we have a central figure in solilloquy, responding with shock and horror at the spectacle of his own inner self.  Can we imagine any character any work ever before who might have responded to himself in the same way.  Montaigne in his study perhaps, or Hamlet (whose own play appeared just a few years before).  But that is the point: Harold Bloom says that Hamlet taught us what it is to be human; her Angelo continues the job.

Another thing I learned since my first encounter: Gielgud's Angelo evidently occupies a pivotal juncture in the development of modern British drama.  I learn that Peter Brooks's presentation of Measure with Gielgud in 1950 proved an eye-opener for British audiences, creating a new understanding of the play and the part almost as revolutionary as Shakespeare's first introduction 350 years before (and not incidentally, did much to establish Brooks' own career).

I'm prompted to remember all this on having seen a new Measure here in Oregon at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival.  It's a flawed performance of a flawed work but interesting in its flaws of both sorts.  Say this about Shakespeare: he often wrote imperfect plays but he never wrote dull plays.  And like no other artist except possibly Picasso, you can always see him pressing the envelope, exploring something new, trying to expand the frontiers of his own world.   I may say more about the new Ashland performance later--I still haven't quite made up my mind about it.  But that may be precisely the appeal of this imperfect work, in text and also in this performance: you know it is imperfect but it gets under your skin and you cannot let it go.

Biblio note: the Gielgud LP is an item in its own right; here's a brief Wiki introduction.  Note to self, see if you can retrieve a copy of the LP.  No, wait, I don't have anything to play it on.


Ken Houghton said...

"Note to self, see if you can retrieve a copy of the LP. No, wait, I don't have anything to play it on."

That's what Limewire is f...oops.

Seriously, though, you can get a turntable at Wal-Mart for about $40, and a decent one (well, for use to transfer the LP to a digital medium; we're not talking high fidelity over the long-term) for about $70.

they call me trouble said...

I have a hard time believing they cost this much, but I suggest you go ahead and get a good turntable and needle and bring your LP records back to life.

Seriously, they sound better than CDs and are a heck of a lot more fun to have around.